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Make Sure Your Health Care Isn’t Hazardous to Your Health

We’ve all heard news reports about the number of medical errors that take place in the United States every year. And we’d all have to agree: when it comes to your health, there’s no such thing as being too safe. But how can you know what’s safe and what’s not? According to Kevin Shrake, registered respiratory therapist and chief operating officer of the AARC, you are your own best “ounce of prevention.” Kevin Shrake’s 10 Tips for Preventing Medical Errors:

  • Post and state your name clearly. It seems silly, but saying your name clearly and posting a sign with your name on it in a thick, black, bold type on your hospital bed lets staff and doctors know exactly who you are. This is especially important when you are sharing a room with another patient.
  • Know your meds. Go over your medications with the doctor prescribing them. Ask what each one is and why you need it, and ask the doctor if there are any reasons why any of your medications might not be right for you. Also ask about drug interactions with any other medications you are taking, including over-the-counter medications. Finally, ask what kinds of side effects to expect with each drug so that you know what to expect — and what not to expect. And always contact your doctor immediately if you experience severe or unexpected reactions to any medications.
  • Don’t just ask, insist that health professionals and others who come into your room wash their hands. Infections spread quickly in hospitals, but proper hand washing by caregivers can significantly reduce the problem. You have the right to know for certain that anyone who handles your food, your bedclothes, your body or your medications has clean hands.
  • Mark your surgery site. Accidental amputations and surgery site mix-ups are extremely rare, but why take chances? Take a black permanent marker and draw a circle, X, or box around the area to be operated on. Have a family member help you if you can’t reach the site.
  • Make sure you can read any prescriptions or other paperwork given to you. One of the main causes of injury and death due to prescription errors is illegible writing. If you can’t read your prescriptions, your pharmacist may not be able to either! Before you leave the hospital or your doctor’s office, read all your prescriptions and any other paperwork you receive. If you can’t understand any document, ask your doctor to rewrite it legibly for you.
  • Take notes. Always bring a notebook with you when you visit the doctor or hospital to document any instructions or other important information you are given. And if something doesn’t sound right, record it in your notebook and ask your doctor to explain it again.
  • Bring a list of questions with you when you visit the doctor or hospital. Sometimes, when we’re coping with all the anxiety related to a hospital stay or doctor visit, we forget all the questions that race through our heads beforehand. Write them down so you’ll have them to refer to when it’s time to talk to your doctor or other health care professional.
  • Request a quiet place: If you are having a hard time hearing your health care professional, ask to close the door, turn down the television, or be taken to a quieter place.
  • Bring a friend or family member with you. When you check in to the hospital or visit your doctor, bring a friend or relative along to serve as an extra pair of ears.
  • Don’t hesitate to call back for more information: Despite your best efforts to get all the information you need during your hospital stay or doctor’s office visit, new questions or concerns are likely to come up once you get home. When that happens, call your doctor or other health care professional can ask for more information or clarification of information already provided.

And remember that ultimately, you are your own best defense against medical errors, so don’t be afraid to speak up if something doesn’t look, sound, taste or feel right to you during your hospital stay or doctor visit. You have the right to protect yourself, and if you don’t, who will?For more information, visit the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality Patient Fact Sheet: 20 Tips to Help Prevent Medical Errors.

Reviewed: May 26, 2005

2024 American Association for Respiratory Care